Monday, February 06, 2012

My worst plagiarism case yet

I've written before about having our stuff plagiarized. In the past, the cases I've found have been generally low-impact, in that the places in which the ripped-off material appeared have been low-key (eg. news articles, course materials). When contacted, the miscreants have either ignored me, or apologised. In this particular case, things got a lot more weird.

Full (and ironic) disclosure: the sections of the paper that were ripped off were actually written by my co-author, Paul Dunne.

A few years ago (in 2007), while searching for a reference to back up an assertion I'd made about NAND gates, I came across a paper on simulating Boolean circuits using DNA. "Looks familiar", I thought, and a side-by-side comparison shows just how similar it was to a 1997 paper I wrote with Paul (our paper is on the left):

At the time, I contacted the senior author, who I'll call Dr A, for reasons which will become clear shortly.

I received a response from Dr A, saying that there had been a "misinterpretation", and decided not to pursue it any further. However, I recently found myself coming across the paper again after following a different trail of references. According to Google Scholar, it's been cited 18 times in the past four or so years, which is a decent number. That's 18 citations to a paper that borrows large conceptual chunks from our original idea, as well as taking whole sections verbatim.

Happily for us, our original paper has been cited many more times than the plagiarized version, but I was rather annoyed to see this bastardised "ghost" version mopping up after it. So, I sent another email to Dr A; this time they sent me a fairly detailed response (on January 31 2012, the date is important), arguing how their method is subtly different to ours. I wasn't entirely happy with this, so I sent them the side-by-side comparison (above). Here's the response I got:

In the first slide, exactly above the highlighted text, I cited you paper. In second slide, I used some text from your paper in problem definition. The definition of Boolean network was very good in your paper and I used it. I thought, this kind of use is fair, and show the value of the paper (you paper).

It's true that our paper was cited, but the text was lifted without any form of quotation. Most telling is the explanation along the lines of "I liked it, so I took it."

I wasn't particularly happy with this, so I responded

I am pleased that you recognize that this is a case of plagiarism; I do not accept the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" argument.

The response I got was quite shocking:

...unfortunately I have cancer and I'm dying and I do not live more than one month.

Huh. I responded to say "I'm sorry to hear that", and then left it, but Googled Dr A on a hunch.

It turned out that Dr A actually died in November of last year. I'm not naming her here directly, because I have no desire for her to show up in connection to a post about plagiarism when she is in no position to defend herself. Nonetheless, it seemed as if someone was posing as her, and responding to her emails through her official University account.

I responded:

I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I am sure that you are not Dr A. The reason I say this is that I believe she died at the end of last year. So, please explain who you are, and why you are continuing to use her email address. This is not about plagiarism now, it's more about establishing who I am actually speaking to.

The person then responded, explaining that they were an ex-student of Dr A (let's call him Mr M), and she had given them her email password prior to her death. Whether or not she had given them permission to pose as her is another question entirely.

I then pointed out to Mr M that he seemed to know a lot about the paper's contents, given that he was not listed as a co-author. His response:

I am a computer programmer. I wrote the programs of Dr. A's papers. For this paper, I wrote the simulation program for testing the algorithm.

So, this guy wrote some simulation code (the results of which are described in the paper), but wasn't listed as a co-author (or even acknowledged). He was paid for his services, I established later.

This all seemed pretty grubby to me at that stage, so I contacted the other author to explain what had happened. On the surface he was very angry, and told me that he had had Mr M's access to Dr A's email revoked. However, when I suggested to him that the paper should be retracted (as suggested for non-trivial cases of plagiarism), he fell strangely quiet.

Edit 9/2/12: He's agreed to retract the paper.

The reason that I'm highlighting this right now is that this week I received a paper to review, which came from Dr A's country (Iran). Without giving anything away, the paper contained several plagiarised figures from various sources, and drew far too heavily on a Ph.D. thesis with which I am familiar. I initially tried to dismiss it as coincidence, but then some cursory research into Iran's research culture led me here and here.

I was particularly struck by the observation in the Times Higher article that "People who are under pressure to get publications out sometimes look to research done in another language, add their twist to it and publish it..", which certainly seems to be the case here.

I don't feel qualified to comment on the complex political, cultural and social reasons for endemic plagiarism, but I very much doubt that tackling plagiarism is high on the Iranian government's agenda right now.